Hi-Res audio (also called Hi-Def, HD, HiFi, and other nicknames) has been an added value feature in music streaming apps since Tidal charted that course with its 2x pricing model: 10 bucks for on-demand listening at normal streaming fidelities, and $20 for Hi-Res. For anyone with a high-end audio signal chain from streaming service into the ears, and for anyone who wanted to start with the highest fidelity regardless of equipment, that premium could be worthwhile. At a RAIN Summit Teen Panel a few years ago, one of the college students onstage (none of whom had much money) subscribed to the high end of Tidal explicitly for the Hi-Res.
Now that business model is at risk of being debunked, as two giant players in the streaming music market, Apple Music and Amazon Music, have simultaneously (though probably not in league) eliminated the extra cost for access to Hi-Res tracks. Those entire Hi-Fi catalogs will be mixed into the total offerings.
We tested the Amazon presentation, and found “HD” and “ULTRA HD” tracks — the latter appears to be Amazon’s embrace of Dolby Atmos, which aspires to mix high resolution with a kind of surround-sound immersion. Listening to ULTRA HD through midrange studio mixing headphones, (Audiotech ATH-M20x), we experience an easily discerned widening of the stereo field. We didn’t pick up any audio artifacts missing from the “HD” tracks — e.g. fret sounds, cymbal frequencies, and other audible relics sometimes lost in audio compression. We loved the sound, and spent enjoyable time cruising around the ULTRA HD catalog, which is searchable.
Now, to see how competing services react. Mark Mulligan, head of MIDiA Research, says in a blog post that the Hi-Def-for-free initiative is a retention strategy: “As all the key DSPs operate on the same basic model, they need to innovate around the core proposition in order to improve stickiness and reduce churn.”